Sunday, April 20, 2014

Figueres...but not as we know it


An insightful and illuminating piece of writing [in English] by novelist Vicenç Pagès Jordà revolving loosely around Figueres, a Catalan town most famous for being the birthplace of Salvador Dalí and home to his museum.

Pagès Jordà covers subjects as wide ranging as pataphysics, the mathematical beauty of the Bay of Roses, the first ever submarine, ironic faith and ridicule as desperation.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spain as one of the most equal for housework and gender?

Apparently so!

"The OECD compiled data from national surveys of men and women ages 15 - 64, both single and married. Hours spent on childcare were included as unpaid work for the few countries that had comprehensive statistics.

In Scandinavian countries like Norway and Sweden, government regulations keep work hours to a comfortable 37.5 per week (40- to 50-hour weeks prevail in other European countries)."

[Source: here.]

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Catalonia’s School of Shepherds

Photograph by Joan Alvado/Nar Photos/Redux
With Catalonia´s unemployment high, a different kind of school is attracting an increasing number of students from urban areas...

"Sheep have grazed mountainous northeastern Spain for 6 million years, but 20th century industrialization led to a dramatic decline in the number of shepherds who tended them. 

For the last six years, Catalonia’s School of Shepherds has worked to keep the ancient profession from disappearing.

Students start with a month of classroom study in a rural home in the Pyrenees. Then they undergo four months of practical training with a veteran shepherd, who gradually gives them responsibilities with a herd. 

About 80 percent of students complete the course, and more than 60 percent go on to work in livestock farming.

A new shepherd on a farm that provides food and lodging earns about €680 ($936) a month, and €900 to €1,200 without room or board. 

A mountain shepherd—who may tend thousands of animals in a busy summer—earns as much as €2,000 a month."

Source: here.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

"Land, bread and peace of mind" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Photo: Javier.
If any political slogan ever summed up the basic needs of the human animal, it was Lenin's call to revolution in Russia almost a century ago: "Peace, Bread and Land!" 

Today in Europe, would these essential elements be much different?

The "land question" is still one of the biggest for the average person only partly because we all must have some kind of shelter from nature's more extreme forces. 

How we are housed, where we are housed and by what means we pay for our housing partly decides how much stress you have to live with or how much comfort you live in. 

If you are renting, the landlord or landlady remains as critical a figure as they were a century ago and despite theoretically better legal rights for tenants, gross exploitation of renters continues in Barcelona, just as it does in Paris, London or Milan.

If you are fortunate enough to be paying off your own dwelling to the bank (as my partner and I have been doing for the last three years) then there is obviously the pressure of ensuring that your income is enough to do this every month...while also putting food on the table. 

Sometimes, I wonder if there is still an echo from feudal times in this great housing dilemma. 

In England for example, it is simply scandalous that an estimated 50% of total land there is still unregistered. 

This means that approximately half the country is owned by families who have inherited large areas of green fields that are not available for possible use as housing. It creates the bizarre fact that English cities are severely over-crowded and the price of a basic flat is well out of reach of the average person.

In Southern Europe the high cost of renting or buying (compared to wages) at least partly explains why in Scandinavian countries only about 4% of 24 to 35 year-olds are still living with their parents. 

In Spain this figure is 37.2%, in Portugal it is 44.4% and in much of Eastern Europe around half of young people have not left the nest. We are witnessing generations who are being denied real independence in their lives.

But when it comes to what is being eaten in and outside the home there is also great inequality. In Spain, the massive rise in demand for donated/charity food has been well documented in the media here and in England there has been an almost 400% increase in the use of so-called "food banks" over the last two years alone. 

I recently explained to some adults I teach that the American slang word for money is "bread," and this gives a particular relevance to the saying that "The more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat."

Strangely enough though, it is now the case that nearly 40% of food grown in the United States of America is never eaten (as their public broadcaster PBS recently discovered.) 

Even allowing for the fact that the average North American consumes more than four hundred times more resources than an African does, the stark absurdity of these numbers cannot explain away how vital food is to our quality of life.

Simply put, land and bread make up a large part of what we call "peace of mind."

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, April 2014.]

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The food in Spain

(Photo: Javier)

Around the world, one in eight people go to bed hungry every night but Spain ranks as the 13th best country for food overall, according to Oxfam's Food Index.

The reasons for this are that in the categories of "enough to eat, food quality and food affordability" Spain does very well, though perhaps surprisingly in the area of health it scores poorly. This is largely due to having a relatively high level of diabetes and obesity, as opposed to most of Africa and Asia which has relatively little of those two medical problems.


Monday, March 17, 2014

"High-speed rail beats air travel for the first time"

One of the AVE networks high-speed trains. / Mariano Cieza Moreno (EFE)

As part of my next book I plan to take trains across Spain and Catalunya this summer. Personally, I don't intend to use high-speed rail (because I prefer the slower version, when I have the time) but I am very pleased about this weeks news. Overall, train travel is far superior to air travel in my view, and is a vital part of any country's infrastructure...

"For the first time ever, high-speed rail has outpaced air travel in Spain.

Figures released by the National Statistics Institute (INE) this week show that 1.9 million people used the country's extensive AVE network in January compared with 1.8 million people who bought plane tickets.

This represents a 7.3-percent year-on-year drop for airplane travel and a 22-percent rise in high-speed rail journeys.

For the aviation sector, the number is the 28th straight month of decline, while the railway network has seen 11 back-to-back months of growth.
The AVE has become more popular ever since the Public Works Ministry made the decision to lower the fares in February of last year. Meanwhile, airlines have experienced a hike in taxes and a cut in their flight routes."

Source: El País, here.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Concha Buika interview in English

A rare interview in English (on Australia's ABC Radio) with the talented Mallorcan flamenco/jazz singer, Concha Buika.

Last week she played her first concert in Sydney and went on to Adelaide as part of a world tour.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

"To screen or not to screen?" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

As I write this, my son is hating me.

Last night I took a computer game off him that his mother and I agreed was violent and told him he would not be getting it back. He is twelve years old and naturally, he disagreed.

But I am not badly disturbed by his feelings toward me. I know they are temporary and I trust in the knowledge that sometimes parents will be hugely unpopular with our own children...if we are being moral, ethical parents - involved parents.

In this part of the world people get a lot right about how children are treated. One of the most notable things is how older children are largely both tolerant and even downright nice to their younger brothers and sisters, as well as to other littler kids they are not related to at all.

In Mediterranean Europe, the family unit is close and socialising with the extended family of grandparents, cousins and other blood relatives is a common part of almost every one's weekly life.

This is in stark contrast to standard Anglo families.

But I would argue that across this stretch of the planet (but probably in other parts, such as North America as well) parents are much too concerned with their children's happiness.

This may sound like a harsh, uncaring statement so it needs a bit of explanation. To me (and to plenty of full-time philosophers) happiness is a temporary state. It comes and goes under it's own invisible steam and can arrive and disappear before we hardly realise it.

The more we desperately look for it or try to manufacture it the more it seems to slip through our fingers.

I'm not advocating that we don't do our best to create situations where our kids are likely to find enjoyment or fun - quite the contrary.

But if we put happiness, which is by its nature a short-term sensation, ahead of trying to develop a son or daughter with a sense of what is right and what is wrong, then we are making a terrible mistake.

If we act and speak by instinctively putting our children's immediate gratification as the priority instead of doing what we can so that they are playing and learning in ways that are beneficial to them (at least in the medium or longer term) what is the logical result?

Years later you end up with adults who value getting as many petty possessions as they can (because materialism is supposed to create contentment) and to them this a thousand times more important than having something as bothersome as a conscience, which just gets in the way of fueling a bigger bank account.

In other words, you have corruption and you have it on a grand scale. The Mediterranean disease.

I accept that the inclination towards having happy children is a healthy one. I just don't accept that this injection of happiness should always be the most important thing.

Faced with the choice of being strongly disliked by my son for a period of time or, on the other hand, turning a blind eye to him exercising disturbing impulses for potentially hours on end, I'd choose unpopularity every time.

Knowing what we now know about how violent, first-person computer games will desensitise even adult users (and that is why modern military training uses simulated war-games) it would be almost a crime to be the indulgent parent.

[A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, March 2014.]

Saturday, March 1, 2014

New York through the eyes of a Spanish great

[In the Big Apple, 1990. Source:]
His insight and acute powers of observation always make his journalism worth reading (as well as his fiction.) Spanish maestro Antonio Muñoz Molina writes in El Pais about his adopted home of New York city as a "nostalgia factory." (Article in English.)

"Nowadays when there are banks and Starbucks on every corner of the yuppied-up Village, and glass towers full of the predatory oligarchs of Russia and China, even nostalgia has a flavor of political protest."

Friday, February 21, 2014

"That which is offensive"

Photo: Jordi Borràs
A well-argued and very convincing short article arguing against the disturbing new national "security law" which threatens to turn many acts of public protest (and even plenty of acts that are not protest at all) into criminal offences.

Source: BCN Mes here.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Barcelona's "fight club"

A fascinating 5 minute video about young men in Barcelona who are taking up boxing as a way to stay out of trouble and give themselves a purpose in life. (With English subtitles.)

Source:Global Post here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

"New project honors thousands of Jews who braved Catalan Pyrenees to escape Holocaust"

"The Lleida Provincial Council is promoting a project entitled ‘Persecuted and Saved’ that aims to identify and mark the principal paths through the Catalan Pyrenees taken by 80,000 fugitives, 20,000 of whom were Jewish, in order to escape the Nazi horror during the Holocaust. 

They will also show the prisons and concentration camps set up to hold those who were caught. The project has already received a good deal of interest from Israel, with Alon Bar, Ambassador of Israel to Spain, visiting the key sites.

Furthermore, Walter Wasercier, CEO of Israel’s principal airline, EL-AL, and Joan Reñé, President of Lleida’s Provincial Council, have met in order to discuss setting up weekly chartered flights between Israel and Lleida-Alguaire Airport.
Reñé claims that the project is an opportunity to “recover the historical memory and publicize the little-known events that occurred here during the Holocaust.”  Bar summarized the importance of the project with a Hebrew saying, “to save a soul is to save an entire world”. 

He also expressed thanks to the Catalan people, many of whom risked their lives to help save Jews and other refugees who were fleeing from Nazi barbarism.

A chance for Jewish people to find their ‘roots’

Bar believes that many Jewish people may find their roots while exploring the sites that their relatives used to escape tyranny and certain death. Over 20,000 Jewish refugees are believed to have passed through the Pyrenees, often taking the harshest and most difficult routes in order to avoid capture by Nazi soldiers patrolling the area.

Better Catalan understanding

Reñé also believes the project is a good chance for Catalans to better understand and appreciate the history of the area and the role that their parents and grandparents played by helping the starving and freezing survivors that made it over the mountains."

Source: Vilaweb here.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The colours of corruption (#2) (My latest opinion column in Catalonia Today magazine)

Europe is nauseous from the cancer of corruption. 

Yes, it still has the glories of its art, its food, its history and its abundant cultural riches - but it is also shot-through with corrupt men and women.

And I don't just mean Mediterranean Europe or its Eastern bloc neighbours. If we decide to include Russia in wider Europe then the point is even clearer. 

If we then go on to acknowledge that Turkey has often been as much a part of Europe as any other more western land covered with olives and sun-ripened tomatoes, then the case is water-tight. Near the end of last December, two of Turkey's government ministers were arrested and, in an open letter to the Turkish press, a state prosecutor alleged police obstruction of a corruption case.

Almost every Spaniard, Greek, Italian or Catalan knows that corruption runs deep through business and government activities, to the point where many people are no longer shocked by fresh daily or weekly revelations of it in the media. We know this all too well because many of us are personally involved in it or we know people who are. It starts from a young age, in truth - the cheating in school tests, then self-serving greedy lies to each other and finally, it is only a small moral step to fiddling the books.
I don't pretend that all this only goes on in this part of the world. As (Berlin-based) Transparency International's most recent annual survey showed, most country's citizens have formed some damning judgments on their own homelands. The “Corruption Perceptions Index” for 2013 concluded that almost 70 percent of the world's nations are "seriously corrupt or worse." While they found that “regionally, Eastern Europe and Central Asia ranked the worst, [but] Western Europe and the EU the best” this does not allow for the fact that 4 of the top 5 “cleanest” are northern-European/Scandinavian countries and therefore these rankings for the region are somewhat skewed.

Across the channel from the continent, those reluctant and selective semi-Europeans, the English, have had their own grubby trials to deal with. Apart from the usual political/finance industry collusion, late last year in London's atmospheric bear-pit court at the Old Bailey, 22 journalists, editors, police officers and prison workers began facing charges of conspiracy to commit misconduct.

In a separate example, a minority group spokesperson (from British Future which studies migration and identity) admitted that problems of electoral corruption had existed for some time. He acknowledged that “unhealthy relationships” between parties, candidates and “sections” of communities are continuing, though he maintains it is actually less of a problem than in the past, with clan-based politics from first generation migrants. His comments came in response to a conservative MP who had argued that it was “mainly the Pakistani community, not the Indian community” that was responsible for a Scotland Yard investigation that eventually found no evidence of widespread fraud in postal vote scams in London's Tower Hamlets area. This came on top of a 2008 finding of guilt against another conservative local councillor just outside London.

But corruption comes in so many different forms and has a thousand faces. A plan recently approved by the government in Malta is perfectly designed for malpractice. It will give anyone who wants to purchase a Malta EU passport the right to reside in any of the other 27 member states for a one-off fee of 650,000 euros. This policy is being introduced because, according to the country’s prime minister Joseph Muscat, it will attract “high value” individuals from around the world. Apparently, those who purchase passports are then going to be able to buy citizenship for their immediate family for just 25,000 euros. A private company called Henley and Partners (who state that they “run an important government advisory practice”) will be put in charge of processing the paperwork.(Meanwhile, Spain is also planning on awarding foreigners residency permits if they buy a house for more than US$215,000.)

So, if in fact, as one definition puts it, corruption is “the abuse of power for private gain... and it hurts everyone who depends on the integrity of people in a position of authority," the question must be asked, “Who is not getting hurt from corruption?”

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Feb.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

The tragedy of the war cry: "Be a man!"

The Good Men Project has just featured an excerpt from my new book, The Remade Parent under the title "“Be A Man!” The War Cry, The Tragedy."

It is a website that has the kind of articles about men, fathers and relationships that are rarely published elsewhere and I highy recommend it.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

"BCNegra" - Crime fiction week in Barcelona

Personally, I think there is too much violence in modern fiction (and maybe it has always been this way) but I also realise that there is some quality writing to be found in books that use murder (as an easy way) to create suspense - Ian Rankin comes to mind.

From today, Barcelona is hosting "BCNegra" (Black Barcelona) or crime fiction week. According to the highly informative blog Literary Rambles: "This year’s star is Andrea Camilleri who will be awarded with the Pepe Carvalho prize. The program is in Catalan and [Castillian] Spanish, but as there are international authors coming, one will also hear some English."

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"Goodreads" is a good read

I have just joined the book review site Goodreads and I am finding it to be a really worthwhile place to visit.

As well as giving independent authors an opportunity to publicise their work, it allows readers to express opinions on the books they've read and to get involved in conversations with other readers and also some writers.

I should have started visiting it a long time ago.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Excavations unearth world's largest collection

"Excavations of a complex of caves in the Sierra de Atapuerca in northern Spain have unearthed hominin fossils that range in age from the early Pleistocene to the Holocene. 

One of these sites, the ‘Sima de los Huesos’ (‘pit of bones’), has yielded the world’s largest assemblage of Middle Pleistocene hominin fossils, consisting of at least 28 individuals dated to over 300,000 years ago. The skeletal remains share a number of morphological features with fossils classified as Homo heidelbergensis and also display distinct Neanderthal-derived traits."

Read more at source here.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Online news about Catalonia in English

VilaWeb is a good source of news from and about Catalonia. It's definitely worth keeping an eye on to keep up to date on events here.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Wind and hydro-power make up almost 50% of Spain's 2013 usage

 "Over the last couple of years, Spain has embarked on a massive program to increase it's renewable energy production, radically increasing its fleet of wind mills and solar panels. Now that program is bearing some serious fruit.

Red Eléctrica de España, Spain's electricity grid operator, has released a preliminary report announcing that in 2013 the single largest source of power in Spain was wind.

Meeting a total 21.1% of the nation's electricity demand, wind farms outshone nation's nuclear reactors which provided a mere 21%. 
Moreover, when combined with solar and hydroelectric power, renewables were able to provide a total of 49.1% of Spain's total electricity output, an impressive feat when you consider the United States only draws a bare 12% from renewable sources. All this reliance on renewable energy has, in turn, allowed the nation to decrease the carbon output of its energy sector by 23.1% in a single year."

[Source: here.]

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"Why Europe?" (My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine)

 (Photo from Desmontando Mentiras, Global Voices online.)

 [A version of this article was first published in Catalonia Today, January 2014.]

Europe exists.

It is certainly under great pressure as an economic group (and therefore also as a political construction) but the past has shown that, as an idea and an ideal, Europe exists.

When I first came to continental Europe I quickly fell in love with this part of the world. I was only 25 but after three months of continual travel I realised that Paris, Berlin, Prague, Italy and Greece made my then hometown in Australia seem ridiculous in comparison, even though it is a capital city.

Sometimes it takes someone who originally comes from outside a place to recognise its worth – someone who does not take it for granted that there is very different kind of life away from shopping malls and quiet suburban streets. 

In Europe, I found defined culture, vibrant history and a sense that the twin Australian priorities of sport and making money are often a very distant second to more sophisticated concerns across Europe. 

In Australia, to call someone an intellectual is typically to insult them for being pretentious. But over here, a writer is generally regarded well and the creative arts have always had a place of broad respect, which is exactly why they are attacked by those in power who are threatened by their satire and criticism. They are important enough to be attacked.

I accept that people are proud of their own cities and countries and I readily acknowledge the differences between them. 

I also believe that (apart from all we have in common as human beings living and striving on this planet) there is a great deal that those of us who live in southern and western Europe share, especially when you think of Mediterranean Europe. 

Here, I mean the (relative) similarity of the food, the central importance of family, the great tragedy of wars and re-building from destruction. Europe has been it's own worst enemy but it is a family of states who have more in common than it's people often want to admit.

There is a darker side to Europe though, and as ever, it is institutions that are failing the people. 

The faceless, unelected individuals of the European Central Bank (ECB) have told Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy what to do and he is happily doing as they say.

The ECB wants further wage cuts and the creation of "mini-jobs" to “address the issue” of youth unemployment, in exchange for buying Spanish government bonds. These "mini-jobs" would pay salaries below the minimum wage, which in Spain is 541 euros a month. 

Not long ago Rajoy told union leaders that he would also use the letter from the ECB as a “road map” for policies aimed at ensuring that Spain remains in “the vanguard of the Euro zone.” Sadly, this is just one of the latest steps in turning Europe into a low-wage “zone.”

Despite this, there is still popular opinion across the wider region that Europe is worth being part of. 

As I write this, thousands of pro-European protesters in Ukraine are facing more government violence against them. They are reported to be angry at the government's last-minute decision not to sign an association deal with the EU, and instead form closer ties with Russia and China.

Europe continues to exist as a progressive ideal but, in some senses, this ideal has begun to seem like more of a dream than a reality.